A few weeks ago, I received an email from KAXE listener Florence Diane Stay, who wrote:
I mentioned on FB that I feed grape jelly to the birds visiting my feeding stations. Someone said that I shouldn’t feed orioles because it’s bad for them. I’ve never heard this but I’ve not researched it either. I just said I’d write you and post what you say and will take the feeders away if it is true.Every year I get questions about feeding jelly to birds. And year after year, the online battles about it get more and more heated. (Read my most visited blog post ever, "Is Feeding Jelly Really Okay for Birds?" and the comments regarding it, here. I had to close comments on that post when some commenters got angrier and angrier without offering any actual information.) No scientific studies have ever been done to establish whether jelly is good, bad, or neutral as far as bird nutrition goes.
In 2004, when I had exceptionally high numbers of orioles, Cape May Warblers, and catbirds coming to my grape jelly, people were finding dead orioles and warblers in the woods—there simply wasn’t enough natural food to support the large numbers of migrants that arrived just before the cold snap. Some birds almost definitely survived specifically thanks to jelly.
But people who disapprove of jelly pooh-poohed that, insisting that even if jelly did save a few avian lives, those birds would have done even better had we been offering cut grapes or something more “natural.” But when I’ve offered both jelly and grapes, birds have shown a definite preference for jelly, and the grapes often get moldy within 24 hours.
I feel absolutely certain that birds derive valuable nutrition from jelly, especially during unseasonably cold and snowy situations during migration. Although all I can offer is anecdotes, I have a lot more than my own personal experiences. I know people who have seen banded individual orioles and catbirds repeatedly at their jelly over multiple years, so the food choice obviously didn’t hamper their long-distance annual journeys or otherwise compromise their survival.
All this said, there are some genuine problems with feeding jelly. First, because it’s so sticky, it must never be offered in large quantities. I’ve heard heartbreaking stories from people who found dead birds mired in it. The one time I witnessed this personally, the Red-breasted Nuthatch didn’t die, but only because I found it in time and had enough experience as a wildlife rehabber that I knew exactly what to do to clean it. It also helped that that particular individual was used to coming to my hand for mealworms, so it ate lots of food during the hours it took for me to administer warm baths over and over until the jelly was gone. Only offer jelly in small quantities—one person told me about a hummingbird dying when it got stuck in jelly, so don’t give more than a small spoonful in any given feeder at a time. During spring migration, I now offer jelly two ways—after orioles clean out an orange half, I put a teaspoonful of jelly in the empty peels, and I have one feeder with a bowl specifically designed for jelly. The bowl would fit about half a cup of jelly, but again I use only a teaspoonful at a time.
Homemade jelly is very sweet, and store-bought jellies with high-fructose corn syrup are even sweeter. Again, no studies on birds have ever shown harms, or benefits, for any jellies, so we can’t base our decisions about the best jellies to feed them on research. But we can use our judgment, and there is a lot of evidence that high fructose corn syrup isn’t healthy for humans, so I can’t imagine it’s any better for birds, and I don’t buy jelly for my family or for birds with high fructose syrup listed in the ingredients.
One woman quoted an internist saying sugar could be addictive to birds, but simple sugars are an important component of the natural diets of orioles, hummingbirds, and Cape May Warblers. Saying sugar could be addictive to birds that actually need sugar in their diet is as patently ridiculous as saying food or water is addictive. No, it’s necessary. Whether the higher concentration of sugar in jelly than in natural foods is a feature or a bug of providing jelly is a subjective judgment. The birds themselves stand firmly on the side favoring jelly.
Bird feeding is a personal matter, but the one universal rule is that the pleasures of attracting birds to our yards come with responsibilities. We each must do our honest best to make sure that above all we do no harm, and that we make our best effort to actually help the birds we’re inviting to our feeders. The scientific jury on offering jelly to birds isn’t out—they haven’t even been collecting evidence yet. If I ever learn of studies that show otherwise, I will immediately spread the word, but based on the experiences of a great many people, offering small amounts of jellies made of fruits and sugar is not harmful, and orioles, catbirds, and other backyard treasures clearly appreciate it. That, for me, is the bottom line.